In the last article I wrote I talked about how all art is valid and valuable and you should find happiness in your work no matter how bad your brain seems to want you to think it is.
In that article, I briefly touched on how skill is still a factor (though relative lack of skill still doesn't mean your art is bad) and that it can be improved through continual practice.
Today, I'm going to look a little closer at that fact, and how you can motivate yourself to practice a little each day and gradually improve your art skills as a result.
Sometimes improvement happens in fits and bursts, and sometimes it happens just a little, tiny bit each day, known as incremental improvement. Both are great, and any improvement is good, but whereas sudden improvement—when something suddenly “clicks” and you become immediately better at that thing—is less reliable, whereas incremental improvement is, by it's very nature, something that can be worked on a little bit each day.
“Practice makes better”—Brian Lies
Furthermore, sudden bursts of improvement can be made more likely by practicing good incremental improvement habits, i.e. practicing a little bit each day. The reason for this is that sudden bursts of improvement are usually the result of your subconscious mind finally getting enough information, and having enough time to process the information, that something difficult and formerly hard to understand suddenly makes complete sense.
The upshot of this is that if you practice each day, you'll not only get the tiniest bit better at what you do every day (and believe me, it does add up), but you'll also make it much more likely that you'll make sudden breakthroughs. While you can't control these sudden bursts of improvement directly, you can give your brain the fuel it needs to make them happen more often, by practicing every day.
Habits are hard to break, hard to start, but easy to keep once they're in place. Practicing art a little each day might be difficult to hold yourself to at first, but give it a few days, maybe a couple of days, and if you stick with it, suddenly you won't be able to imagine going through a day without practicing.
“We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.” —Walt Stanchfield
The reason for this lies in how exactly habits form. It's understood that habits are formed and reinforced through a three part “habit loop.” A habit loop consists of a cue, followed by the routine (the behavior itself; in this case, practicing art every day), concluded with a reward.
A cue is something that remind your brain it's time to do something. You can create a cue for yourself by consistently practicing art at the same time of day, in which case the time is the cue. You can also put it right before or after another daily routine, like say, practice art when you get home from work. In this case, arriving home from work is the cue that reminds you it's time to make art.
The routine is the habit itself. In this case, the routine is practicing art. Make sure that when your cue happens, whatever it may be, you actually practice art, thereby reinforcing the cue and the routine.
And finally, a reward is, well, something that rewards you for completing a routine. These come in two flavors: intrinsic and extrinsic.
“Create with the heart; build with the mind.” —Criss Jami
An intrinsic reward is the good feeling you feel by doing something you find rewarding in and of itself. It is a reward attached to the exercise, rather than something outside of it. Quite simply, if you enjoy the activity, it's intrinsically rewarding. Hopefully, even if it feels like a chore at first, you come to enjoy your daily practice in time. After all, if you decided to be an artists, you must enjoy making art one some level, right? Find that spark of inspiration, of creativity and wonder, that led you to make art in the first place. Hang on to it tight, and let it fuel your daily practice.
An extrinsic reward, on the other hand, is a reward outside the action being rewarded. For example, buying a candy bar that you only let yourself eat once you've done your daily practice would be an extrinsic reward, because eating candy doesn't have anything directly to do with making art.
While all artists can find intrinsic motivation in there work to some degree or another (if we didn't, we probably wouldn't have become artists), sometimes it's still really hard to motivate oneself to draw when you could be doing something else. Here are a few more extrinsic motivators to help you spur yourself along. Treat these as rewards to give yourself after you've finished your daily practice!
Watch a bit of TV, a youtube video, web-series, etc. If you still have more to do afterwards, limit yourself to 20-30 minutes.
Play a video game for a bit. Again, keep it to 20-30 minutes if you've got more to do in the day.
Make yourself some coffee, tea, a milkshake, smoothie, etc, etc.
Treat yourself to your favorite sweet treat; cookies, candy, cake, pie, whatever you like!
Take a nice relaxing soak in the bath.
Do nothing at all for five minutes. You'd be surprised how relaxing it can be.
Reward yourself at intervals.
The above all make great daily rewards, but you can reward yourself for sticking with it over longer periods of time, too. Buy yourself something nice after practicing every day for a week or two, and again after a month or so. Here are some ideas of what to get yourself for under $20
A nice pair of fuzzy socks for wearing around the house.
A new book
An older video game (they drop in price as the years pass) that you've never played before.
Get a tasty bottle of wine. There are plenty of brand you can get for $20 or less that still taste great.
Get a new, luxurious lotion
Treat yourself to your favorite restaurant, either eating in or ordering take out to eat on the comfort of your own couch; whichever sounds more appealing to you.
So now you know how daily practice can help you improve as an artist, and you know how habits work, and how they're formed. But what now? Just that knowledge on its own doesn't make daily art practice magically happen, and even the most rewarding of rewards can't always solve this problem. What's more, sometimes the hardest part about practice, and making art in general, is what to draw this time. Even if you want to practice art, not knowing what to draw can make it really hard to keep the habit.
Luckily, there's a number of things you can do to motivate yourself to practice every day, and to keep yourself inspired and creative.
Try making the cue for your art practice habit something exciting. You could set a daily alarm where the alarm tone is your favorite song. You could put art practice right before or after something in your daily schedule that you enjoy. Make sure you don't slot art practice after something that leaves you tired or drained. Try to make it so that when it's time to practice art, you're excited, even pumped to get to work on your latest creation.
Find a list of prompts. Just search on Google for “art prompts” and you'll get all kinds of results, from premade lists to generators.
Open a physical dictionary to a random page, and put your finger on a random spot on the page without looking. Whatever word your finger is on (or is closest to), think of a piece of art you can do for practice that has something to do with that work
If you don't have a physical dictionary, both dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com have a word of the day feature that you can use in the same way as the above tip.
Go outside! Find something compelling to draw in the natural world, or in a city street, a neat-looking building, and so on.
Take a break! Daily practice is great, but it is possible to burn out of creativity, in which case, forcing yourself to forge on can eventually just make things worse. If you need to, take a day, a week, or a month off from making art, including daily practice. Just remember to come back to it; when you do, you'll be refreshed and better than ever.
Remember that everyone is different, and a daily practice habit may just not be for you. If you've tried over and over and done everything you can think of to make yourself practice each day and it just never sticks, consider that maybe a daily practice habit isn't for you. Instead, try every other day, or a certain number of times per week. Whatever works for you. There's no shame in having different needs and stamina levels than others.
“I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature...When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime just painting that river.” —Alan Lee
Here are a few links to art prompt generators and other useful tools for inspiration:
Has several categories of prompt generators to choose from, including characters, objects, environments, and more.
A Pinterest search for art prompts. There are several potentially useful lists here.
The Inktober initiative, besides being a neat challenge you can try every October, also includes 31 different art prompts every year.
Another handy prompt generator. You can generate a list of prompts however long or short you wish, and make them simple—ranging from a single word to a short phrase or sentence—or elaborate, such as the following example prompt I generated to try it out: “Create three pictures on the theme of blood on the snow. The first should depict depression, the second joy, and the third paranoia.“
Improvement tends to happen both incrementally and in sudden bursts
Daily practice causes incremental improvement, but also makes sudden improvement more likely.
Habits are the backbone of things like daily practice.
Habits are formed by a three part loop, involving a cue, a routine, and a reward.
The reward can be intrinsic or extrinsic.
A habit is most likely to stick if you use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
If you don't know what to draw, it's much harder to keep an art practice habit. To counter this, you can use prompts or random words to inspire yourself.
Practice can feel boring and stale much of the time, and can be a very hard habit to keep consistently, but the long-term rewards of regular practice are very much worth the effort. I hope the content of this article can be of some help to artists who, like many of us—myself included—have trouble keeping a regular practice habit. Best wishes; I can't wait to see your practice pay off!